The South Carolina House on Thursday passed an early voting bill that Democrats said would have the opposite effect, actually limiting voters' ability to cast a ballot early.
The bill, approved 66-37 over the objections of Democrats, would create a nine-day window of no-excuse-needed early voting, excluding Sundays. But it ends the system of in-person, absentee voting now available for a month before Election Day.
Rep. Joe Neal, D-Hopkins, called the measure a nonsensical bill that's "patently unfair."
People can now vote in-person absentee if they provide an excuse for why they can't vote on Election Day, such as being at work or on vacation. The bill pushed through by the majority Republicans would eliminate that in-person absentee option.
It would leave intact voting absentee by mail. But Democrats contend that's an extended and difficult process.
Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, argued his bill cleans up the system and "turns would-be fibbers into non-fibbers."
"This prevents confusion," he said, because voters often mistakenly believe the state already has 30 days of early voting.
He acknowledged not liking the idea of early voting, saying people should vote on Election Day, because late-breaking news can change minds in the waning days of a campaign. Despite that, he said, the bill allows plenty of time for people to cast ballots early, including two Saturdays.
Democrats said his bill would result in longer lines at the polls, rather than the shorter lines voters want.
"Unfortunately, our Republican colleagues have no interest in making it easier to vote in South Carolina or shortening the voting lines on Election Day," said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia. "Instead, they want voting to be as complicated, tedious, and exclusive as possible."
The bill requires another, perfunctory vote to send the bill to the Senate, which passed its own early voting bill last month. The Senate version does not affect in-person absentee voting, but rather adds a 10-day window when an excuse isn't needed.
Clemons was the only Republican to take the podium on his bill's behalf. Republicans didn't have to argue, knowing they had the votes. After nearly five hours, Rep. Chris Hart asked his fellow Democrats to give up, noting the futility of their speeches.
"Sometimes, you've just got to let go and let God," said Hart, D-Columbia. "We've just got to get out of the way. I promise we'll be satisfied with the results next election."
The hours of arguments sounded much like Democrats' fight over the voter identification law that Republicans pushed through in 2011.
Democrats in South Carolina and other states allege that Republican efforts to limit early voting and require voter ID are aimed at suppressing voting by minorities and others who tend to favor Democratic candidates. Republicans say voter ID laws are needed to reduce voting fraud.
Neal warned Republicans that if their early voting bill becomes law, it too would wind up in court at taxpayers' expense. The 1965 Voting Rights Act requires any change to South Carolina's election laws to be cleared by the federal government due to its past history of racial discrimination.
South Carolina spent $3.5 million defending its voter ID law.
Attorney General Alan Wilson sued in February 2012 after the U.S. Department of Justice rejected the state's law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. South Carolina's law was the first voting law to be refused federal clearance in nearly 20 years.
A panel of federal judges upheld the law last October. But the state recouped just $54,000 of its legal expenses from the federal government.
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